Blanche Kelso BruceJul 27th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Politics, Social Sciences
1841-1898 Blanche Kelso Bruce was a prominent politician in Mississippi and Washington, DC, for three decades in the aftermath of the Civil War. He holds the distinction of being the first African American to serve a full, elected term in the U.S. Senate.
Escape from Slavery
Bruce was born near Farmville, Virginia, on March 1, 1841, the youngest of 11 children, born to a slave known only by the name of Polly An unidentified white father may have been the source of Bruce’s notably light complexion. He was raised on plantations in Virginia, Mississippi, and Missouri, reportedly in a favored and supportive environment that provided him with an education, including a private tutor, on par with that of the white children.
Though he had been granted some privilege, Bruce was a slave, and when the Civil War began, he escaped the plantation and found refuge in Kansas. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, he felt safe enough to return to Missouri, where according to some evidence, he helped establish a school for freed slaves in the town of Hannibal. It is known that at one point, Bruce enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, near Cleveland. But he was continually drawn by the idea of helping open up the south’s political landscape to Blacks, and he found the greatest opportunity to do so in Mississippi.
Bruce arrived in Mississippi Delta country in 1869 and landed the highly political job of registrar of voters for Tallahatchie County. He soon found himself immersed in politics, busily recruiting African Americans for the Republican Party. By 1870, his competence had gained him the favor of state party leaders, which led to his selection as the senate’s Sergeant at Arms for the first Mississippi legislature to meet in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The following year, Bruce won election to his first political office, the post of tax collector in Bolivar County, just over the line from Tallahatchie. At the same time, he was appointed county superintendent of education, overseeing the creation of a separate and ostensibly equal system of schools for African Americans. Finally, he also was named to a three-county board with the power to fund levee construction. In these positions, Bruce made providing jobs and promoting peaceful integration among freed black slaves his major concerns. His efforts served to make him popular with citizens of both races. Well connected and earning a good income, Bruce began accumulating wealth, mainly in the form of land.
From Tax Collector to Senator
In 1874, the Mississippi Senate had the opportunity to fill one of its two seats in the U.S. Senate, the other being held by white Republican Scalawag James Alcorn. (U.S. Senators were elected by state legislators until 1913, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave this power to the people.) With support from all factions of the Republican Party and even a few Democrats, Bruce was an easy choice, and in March of 1875, he took his seat in Washington. Given the cold shoulder by Alcorn, his fellow Mississippian, he nonetheless took an active role in the senate, passionately advocating the rights of African and Native Americans. He remained in office until 1881, thus becoming the first black senator to serve a full term.
Bruce served in the U.S. Senate during the period when the white south resisted, undermined, and dismantled the protections and guarantees for African Americans that post-war Reconstruction had been designed to secure. He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and other disruptive and violent groups, and he worked tirelessly, mostly behind the scenes and without great success, to convince the federal government to take effective action against them. At the same time, loyal to the south, Bruce spoke out against those who encouraged Blacks to move north or return to Africa.
Bruce married Josephine B. Wilson in 1878. Raised in comfortable circumstances in Cleveland, Ohio, she had no trouble joining her husband as they became well-accepted members of Washington’s affluent and mostly white society. His marriage, along with Bruce’s moderate positions, tended to increase the political distance between him and his black Mississippi constituency, which as southern resistance to Reconstruction continued, became increasingly desperate and intolerant of moderate responses.
By 1881, Reconstruction had collapsed and anti-black Democrats had taken control of Mississippi’s government. With no prospect of reelection, Bruce allowed his term to expire and accepted an appointment by President James Garfield to the position of Registrar of the United States Treasury While performing the functions of this and subsequent offices, Bruce also dabbled in history and commerce, acting as curator, for instance, in an 1884 exhibit in New Orleans celebrating the contributions Blacks had made, mostly under slavery, to America’s prosperity.
Bruce continued to live and work in Washington’s upper political circles well into the next decade. President William McKinley reportedly considered making him the nation’s first black cabinet secretary in 1897, exactly 70 years before it actually happened (when President Lyndon Johnson appointed Robert Weaver the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), but in the end, McKinley reappointed him to the Treasury position. Bruce suffered from diabetes, and finally succumbed to related complications and died on March 17, 1898.
Often considered a polarizing figure in historical texts because of his comfortable life in the nation’s capitol during a time when threats, beatings, and lynchings overtook the south and obliterated the newfound rights of freed Blacks, Bruce is nevertheless remembered for using his political skill to rise to the highest levels of government in an attempt to forge a better life for his people. In the first decade after the Civil War, he was a courageous leader and an exemplary figure in the battle for the rights of African Americans.